Albert (Bert) Miller, My Dad

By his daughter Phyllis Smith

This is the story of his life, and how he became associated with Mildmay Mission Hospital.

My Dad was born on 13th February 1919, to Susan and James Miller, the youngest of six children. They lived in Hedsor Buildings on the Boundary Estate, just five minutes walk from the Mildmay Hospital. This estate was the first ever built by a local authority anywhere in England. It had been constructed in 1900 on an area previously known as The Old Nichol, or The Jago (This was the setting for the book A Child of the Jago. It chronicled the lives of a boy and his family living in extreme poverty in the 1890s).

Arnold Circus on the Boundary Estate. The bandstand is yet to be completed.

Arnold Circus on the Boundary Estate. The bandstand is yet to be completed.

As a matter of interest, rubble from the old slums was used to build an elevated bandstand that forms the centrepiece of Arnold Circus. Also around this time Charles Booth, a pioneer of social research, conducted an extensive survey of living conditions in London, publishing maps, colour coded according to the wealth of an area. He coloured the Jago in black, the bottom of the scale, the poorest and most crime ridden.

By the time my Dad was born, the area had become home to a varied population with a substantial proportion being Jewish refugees. When he was growing up, nearly all of his friends were Jewish. To stay part of the group he even attended Shul with them. This was where Jewish boys studied their culture and religion. Definitely not a place where Christians were allowed. The teachers must have thought it strange to have a blue-eyed, blond-haired child in their classes. He was accepted as being Jewish following a plausible “explanation” being given by his friends for his obviously non-Jewish appearance. 

The details of this “explanation” cannot be repeated here. Only when it was time for Jewish boys to take part in the Bar Mitzvah, the coming of age ceremony, did he have to leave. During this time, he learnt Yiddish and Hebrew. However, with Dad being a Christian, on Sundays and midweek, he was an altar boy at church where he studied Latin and sang in the choir. He was Christened by Father Jay in Holy Trinity Church, which was in Old Nichol Street.

He went to Virginia Road, and then Rochelle Street schools. He used to chat to me about Miss Aberdeen who was his first teacher at Virginia. She also happened to be mine as well when I started there some 28 years later.

Following the sudden death of his beloved sister Ivy, he suffered from severe shock which left him unable to speak for over three years.

Young Albert and his beloved sister Ivy

Young Albert and his beloved sister Ivy

St Hildas, Old Nichol Street

St Hildas, Old Nichol Street

Eventually he was referred to St Hildas, a local charity. St Hildas had been founded by former pupils of Cheltenham Ladies College to do good works in the East End.

In the 1920's it was just a house in Old Nichol Street. One of the volunteers, a Lady Charlotte, took him under her wing. With her help she got him speaking again, albeit with a stammer. She read to him and bought him books, the first of which was Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens. He was taken to classical concerts and museums. Thus began a lifelong passion for classical music, art, literature and a thirst for knowledge.

He attended Mansford Street Secondary School. He hated it as he was bullied because of his stammer. He left as soon as he could. He secured a part-time job, working early evenings and weekends in a tailoring factory. The owner recognised his aptitude for the work and offered him a full-time job. This led to him being trained as a tailor's cutter.

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On the 4th October, 1936 Dad was involved in the infamous Battle of Cable Street. He went with his Jewish friends to help stop a march by Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. During the ensuing riot he was hit by a Malacca cane wielded by a mounted policeman. Having been parted from his friends, he sheltered in a stairwell nursing a head wound. An elderly Jewish lady, on seeing this 6ft 4in, blonde 17-year-old, assumed he was one of the Mosley thugs and began to curse him. He replied to her in Yiddish. She apologised, took him in, and bandaged his head. Those years of attending Shul were not wasted.

Image credit: Alan Denney

Jarrow marchers en route to London

Jarrow marchers en route to London. National Media Museum from UK

It was also in October 1936 that the Jarrow March took place. It reached London at the end of October. Many people along the route had given assistance to the marchers, even though in many cases they had very little money or food themselves. It was the way working-class people behaved. Londoners were no different, and my Dad took part in the efforts to help.

 

When the Second World War began he joined the army but remained for only a short time. He had to be discharged because of a duodenal ulcer, a condition that was to plague him for many years. However, he did fire watching and other general war duties.

The Blitz

One evening whilst walking near Old Street, he was passing by a young couple when he heard the unmistakable sound of a V1 rocket overhead. When the engine cut out it meant that the bomb was falling fast. Throwing the couple into a nearby shop doorway, he quickly followed. The shop was completely demolished but fortunately, they were protected by the wooden shop door which had fallen on top of them. They walked away with only minor cuts and bruises.

As he got older his stammer started to improve, but the legacy of Lady Charlotte's elocution lessons stayed with him forever. He was left with an accent more akin to Cheltenham than Shoreditch. It meant that living in the East End with a 'posh voice' would have its moments.

He met Mum (the light of his life) during the war. They married in 1942 and lived with her parents near St.Pancras Station. After a few years, they moved to a one-bedroom flat in Abingdon Buildings on the Boundary Estate.

I was born there in 1947 and was to be their only child. Life wasn't easy but we were extremely happy. Dad's health was never great because of his ulcers. Most of the time in pain and having to eat only bland food. But he carried on working full-time, which in those days meant 7.30 am until 6 pm Monday to Friday, and 7.30 am until 1 pm on a Saturday.

Wedding Day 1942

Wedding Day 1942

One winter he contracted pneumonia. His doctor told Mum he was too sick to move and would probably die, but she managed to nurse him back to health. No work meant no money back then. After a short time, there was nothing left.

In the flats where we lived, Thursdays were usually food-sharing days. The neighbours on our floor would collect up what food that they had left and cook a communal meal which was then shared by all. In most working-class families it was the rule that, as the breadwinner, the man of the house ate first. The children came next, with anything leftover going to the woman of the house.

Eventually, a reluctant decision was made that Mum should go to the National Assistance Board for help. Asking for help from the government was seen as a bad thing by working-class people. Those on benefits were seen as scroungers and weak-willed. So the decision to seek help was not taken lightly. Today the National Assistance Board is known as the DWP.

In the 1950s there was a completely different attitude by the authorities towards people requiring financial help. All benefits were means-tested. Following a claim, an official would visit the home of the claimant and make a detailed inventory of all assets including cash, clothing, furniture, in fact, anything of any value.

Essentials were allowed to be kept, but anything deemed unnecessary had to be sold before any monies could be paid out. Amongst the items on the official list of essentials were cookers, beds, cots, dining tables and chairs, (one chair for each occupant), wardrobes and curtains. Non-essentials included easy chairs, radios, carpets, dressing tables and chests of drawers. We must have drawn an official with a heart of gold, because even though there were only the three of us, he allowed us to keep a fourth dining room chair. He also stated that we could keep the sideboard, as this is where our food was stored (when we had any).

When Dad was strong enough he went back to work, only to be told that he was sacked because he had been replaced during his absence. Fortunately, because of his reputation within the local tailoring trade, he was able to find another job the same day.

As a consequence of long periods of pain, he became an insomniac. Unable to sleep, he studied through the night, teaching himself tailoring and design. He would design and cut out men's suit patterns on our dining room table. These new skills were to become invaluable later.

At the camera club

Bert at the Camera Club

As a form of relaxation, he joined the Bethnal Green Institute Camera Club, which was run by the London County Council. Renowned as a centre of excellence, many up-and-coming photographers were members.

Amongst them was Terence Donovan, who went on to be a well-known professional photographer and director of advertising films. Dad entered many competitions, being successful on a regular basis. A winning portrait he took of me was exhibited in The National Portrait Gallery. He would have liked to have taken his hobby further, but due to his ill health he carried on with tailoring. Because of the near-constant discomfort he only ever worked within walking distance of home. 

My portrait was exhibited at the Guildhall Gallery

My portrait was exhibited at the Guildhall Gallery

Competing with Terence Donovan

Competing with Terence Donovan

In 1957, we moved away from the Boundary Estate. I was now 10 years old, therefore under the Housing Regulations was eligible for my own bedroom. There were no two-bedroomed flats available so we moved ten minutes walk away to the Peabody Estate, near to Columbia Road flower market. Dad was upset at the time but we made our new life there.

In the early 1960s came the revolutions in music, but more importantly for Dad, fashion. Dad's nocturnal studies came into their own and he began designing men's suits that were destined to end up in the boutiques in London's West End and the fashion district of Carnaby Street.
At work – note the dress code

At work – note the dress code

I married in 1966 and left home to live nearby. We made Mum and Dad grandparents in 1968 when our daughter, Jennifer was born.

It was around this time that Dad went into the Mildmay for a minor operation. He was so overwhelmed by the friendliness and caring attitude of the staff, that following his recovery, he joined the Mildmay Mission Monday Night 'Boys Club. He attended meetings regularly and enjoyed both the religious services and the camaraderie.

In 1971, at age fifty-two, Dad's ulcer perforated. The operation to repair the damage left him with only one-third of his stomach. After a month in the London Hospital and another at Banstead Convalescent Home, he returned home. He was cheered up by the birth of our second child Andrew. After a further four weeks, he returned to work. For the first time in many years, he was completely pain-free and able to enjoy a normal diet. He could also live his life without constantly being in pain.

Mum and Dad started to go on holiday to my aunt and uncle's property in Spain. Dad decided to learn Spanish. In order to achieve this, he went to the library and borrowed the Linguaphone tapes and books. He became fluent and would speak Spanish throughout his holidays. On occasions, he would help my uncle in his dealings with the local authorities.

In the mid-1970s cheap imported clothes started to flood the country, which had a major impact on the English tailoring trade. The factory he worked for tried to compete by buying new machinery and cutting costs, but it was a losing battle. The factory closed in 1977, and he was out of a job at the age of fifty-eight.

During one of the Monday night meetings at the hospital, Dad happened to mention that he was looking for a job. Matron heard this and told him that there was a vacancy for a porter. Two weeks later he started work. Thus began his thirty year association with the Mildmay in all its future guises. He loved it. For him it wasn't a job, but a vocation. Shift-work never bothered him due to his insomnia.

He would do his work, but always make time to visit the children in Coventry Ward. There was one little lad that was unable communicate. However whenever Dad appeared, he would make chuckling noises. The nurses were amazed at this. Maybe it was his height 6ft 4in – who knows?

The start of the long association with the Mildmay

Over the years he saw many changes at the Mildmay. It went from the hospital he knew to a community hospital. Government cuts saw its closure. It then reopened as a Hospital exclusively for AIDS sufferers.

During one lot of alterations to the hospital, Dad saw some photo transparencies lying in a skip. Photographers never throw photographs away, so after obtaining permission he retrieved them and brought them home. On inspection, he found that they were photographs of the Mildmay and staff dating back to the early '60s.

 

When he died I brought them home with me. After reading on Mildmay's website that old photographs are needed for an archive project I have recently sent them over.

There happened to be a General Election called whilst the hospital was shut. One of the campaign messages of the Conservative Government was that “The NHS Is Safe In Our Hands”. To illustrate this they commissioned Saatchi & Saatchi, their PR managers, to produce an advert showing how well the NHS was performing under a Tory Government.

 

Where better to film it than in an empty disused hospital which had been closed because of lack of money!

On the appointed day, the porter on security duty was suddenly confronted by a convoy of cars, lorries and minibuses arriving at the front door. Beds, screens, medical equipment, swarms of actors dressed as doctors, nurses and patients were all unloaded. There was everything required to conjure up the illusion of a fully functioning hospital ward, along with cameras, lights and a gaggle of production staff.

 

Unfortunately, all of this effort and great expense was for nothing. Two telephone calls, one to The Hackney Gazette and one to The Daily Mirror by an “unknown person” quickly produced hoards of reporters and photographers.

 

Soon after their arrival on the scene the make-believe hospital was dismantled and disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.

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When Mildmay became an AIDS hospice, several companies donated goods and services. Marks and Spencer in Mare street would regularly make available surplus food for collection, Dad used to go along in the old Volvo estate that the Hospital also used as an ambulance. As well as keeping down food costs it also meant that the patients were treated to many of the high-quality food items sold by M&S.

In 1984, now aged sixty-five, dad decided to retire. He, or rather my mother, lasted two weeks. Evidently, he was driving her crazy after suddenly finding himself with nothing to do all day.

 

Soon he was back at the Mildmay, asking if he could volunteer. They were happy to accept his offer. He would go there at 5 am, taking in the bread and milk in good time for the kitchen to prepare breakfast. His next job was to collect the patients daily food orders and this would be the excuse for him to sit chatting. Although he never spoke of it, I believe that dad also performed other duties which involved patients who had sadly passed away.

Every morning he would return home at 9 am. Mum would be ready and off they would go to the Haggerston Swimming Baths. A one-mile swim was their target. Once home they would have lunch, then he would pop back to the hospital. If nothing needed to be done, he would visit the patients. One gentleman who died whilst Dad was on holiday bequeathed him a watch. Inscribed on the back were the words, 'To a true friend'. 

​2003 was a bad year. Dad had a massive fit in January. In February he had a pacemaker fitted.

Then in March, Mum died. They had celebrated their 60th Wedding Anniversary the year before. The light went out of his life. In May, he was diagnosed with facial cancer. This was successfully removed, and a skin graft was done. After all of this, he never wanted to do anything. We tried everything. As he had painted before, my daughter bought him some oil paints and brushes. They sat in the corner for a while, but then he started using them. After that, many visitors to his flat would leave carrying a Bert Miller original. The spark was coming back.

He resumed going to 'work' and, continued volunteering until he was eighty-eight. He got an infection which prevented him from going to the Mildmay. It wasn't because he wasn't capable of continuing, but rather that he was afraid that he would compromise the health of the immune-deficient patients. He still kept in touch with them. In total, he was with Mildmay for 30 years. Employed for 7 and a volunteer for 23.

After he stopped volunteering he was still active but just after his 90th birthday, he had a fall, shattering his femur. He was operated on successfully but was never the same. He became housebound, needing help from family, district nurses, friends, and carers. In 2011 aged ninety-two, he died.

When we see an elderly person in the street it is easy to dismiss them as old and frail and not worthy of a second thought. But what we don't see is the life that they have led. They could have led a mundane existence or they might have had an amazing life. Nobody should be taken for granted.

Albert Miller on his 90th birthday

Bert Miller, on his 90th birthday

In my Dad's case, he was able to read and speak, Latin, Hebrew, Yiddish and Spanish. Passionate and knowledgeable about literature, history, classical music, and art. An accomplished photographer. An enthusiastic artist. A skilled craftsman, well respected by fellow professionals in the tailoring industry. Of course, added to all this, he was a devoted supporter of the Mildmay.

He was very much a family man, a husband, a father and a grandfather. Very much loved and missed.

To me, he was this amazing man, and my Dad."

We are very grateful to Phyllis for sharing her Dad's remarkable story with us

If you have story that you would like to share about your experience with Mildmay, please get in touch. We'd love to hear from you.